Jeb Bush revealed an awful lot of weaknesses as he tried to figure out an answer to the most obvious question raised by his candidacy: what would he have done about Iraq?
It all started with Fox's Megyn Kelly asking something totally predictable.
After initially mishearing the question, then fumbling around it a bit, Bush finally clarified later in the week that knowing what he knows now, "I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq."
In between, several of his Republican rivals said they would have stayed out given current knowledge, several late-night comedians feasted on his inability to come to a pretty obvious conclusion, and several potentially fatal flaws in his candidacy surfaced all at once.
- He's not as ready for primetime as previously thought.
- The dynasty problem is bigger than many thought.
- He's got thin skin for a presidential candidate.
- A third Bush presidency could mean another war in Iraq — or elsewhere.
How the hell did he fail to prepare for that question?
All along, the conventional wisdom (and, admittedly, my own view) has been that Bush would emerge as one of a handful of serious candidates for the Republican nomination, not just because of the money he's raising but because he'd be more polished and less error-prone than the rest of the pack. His Iraq answer(s) shakes that conventional wisdom to its establishment-hugging core.
You'd expect a stumbling, bumbling answer on Iraq from Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon turned presidential candidate, or from a governor who hasn't had to worry much about foreign policy. But a Bush? On Iraq?
"It's still early, and all presidential candidates have early stumbles. It is odd, however, that he did not have an answer ready for this particular question," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in the Los Angeles area. "If he handles foreign policy questions skillfully from now on, this episode will go into the memory hole. If he keeps messing up, then all the campaign books will have a chapter starting, 'It seemed like a simple question...'"
Philip Bump of the Washington Post has an easy-to-use rundown of the things Bush said as he backpedaled from the comments he made to Kelly on Monday and finally found safer ground on Friday. Among them: he misheard the question, and he didn't want to do a disservice to the troops who died by saying the war was a mistake.
But the original question was so obvious that the week of waffling raises the possibility that Bush hasn't thought about his candidacy, his ideas, or his vulnerabilities nearly as deeply as everyone assumes he has.
The real dynasty problem
The real problem with dynasties in a democracy isn't that one family occupies the throne for centuries like the Plantagenets of England. With presidential elections every four years, the likelihood of a long run of single-family rule is remote. The deeper question — and this applies to both Bush and Clinton — is whether they would put family over country in day-to-day governance.
Jeb Bush, who said his brother also believes mistakes were made in both the intelligence and the execution of the Iraq mission, told Kelly he didn't want to distance himself from his brother.
"So just for the news flash to the world, if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those," he said.
That reluctance comes against the backdrop of Hillary Clinton rejecting policies from her husband's administration, most notably the anti-crime laws that she says have resulted in an "era of mass incarceration." Clinton aides still haven't said whether she remains supportive of his welfare reform law.
If Bush feels he can't govern in ways that imply a rejection of his brother's or his father's policies, then that's a huge constraint on his ability to govern. Loyalty to family above all else is an honorable trait in just about anybody but a president.
Bush's thin skin
Jeb Bush has been in the public eye a long time. His family has been in the public eye a long time. You would think he would be serene about the daily jabs and humiliations of the campaign. But Bush looked downright uncomfortable when confronted by a student who said George W. Bush had created ISIS with the war in Iraq.
That shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has followed Bush's career or tried to interview him. He's easily irritated. So, for that matter, is Hillary Clinton.
Most winning presidential candidates (Richard Nixon stands as an exception) are pretty good at pretending not to be annoyed by questions from voters, partisan hecklers, or even reporters. The very best use gentle humor to deflect the question or undermine the questioner.
Bush is going to have to shake the hands of a lot of people who are very used to digging into presidential candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other states if he hopes to win the Republican nomination. He'll need to at least pretend he's happy to take their questions.
Third Bush, third Iraq war?
In his exchange with the student, Ivy Ziedrich, Bush repeated his view of the factors that led to the rise of ISIS.
"The simple fact is that we are in a much more unstable place because America pulled back," he said of the Obama administration's decision not to renew a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government at the end of 2011.
That's the same argument made publicly by his brother, who once warned that too early a withdrawal from the country would force American troops to return there. And while it's clear that Americans think going into Iraq was a mistake, the percentage who approve of sending ground troops to Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS is rising, according to a series of CBS polls.
In addition to his brother, Bush's set of foreign policy advisers includes architects of the Iraq War such as Paul Wolfowitz. Right now, it seems unlikely that running on going to war in Iraq again would be part of a winning formula for the next president. But we don't know what the situation there will look like in November 2016. And between Bush's stated agreement with the first two Iraq wars, his reliance on his brother's foreign policy advisers, his apparent desire to argue that his family had Iraq right all along, and his discomfort with clearly saying what he would do about Iraq, it makes another Iraq war look a lot likelier than anyone thought.